A Reflection on: Religion and the Oppression of Women

KC JOURNAL NO 20 November 2008

In this article Morar gives an historical overview of religion and the position of women. He argues that people have a right to follow their own individual conscience, and that women must unite and lead the struggle for their own liberation, actively supported by the Church.

Religion used to oppress women

Religion in many instances has been used to oppress women in society, whether in the places of worship, community and/or family life. One particular area is the reproductive rights of women. Usually, males decide when to have sex and what women can and cannot do with their bodies. Such control over women starts in the Church. For example, women are required to have their heads covered. In the business community, women are exploited to increase profits in commercial advertising and trafficked for sex and labour.

Moral teachings reinforce men’s role to make decisions for women in almost all religions. Many leaders provide teachings, prescriptions and regulations about sexual relations that usually make the lives of ordinary women more difficult than they ought to be. These stipulations do not help women to live a life of dignity, including women’s rights to enjoy sex, whether to have children, and the company of their partners. Some women even grow up with a negative attitude towards their bodies and themselves, due to such teachings.

Christian dominance

The discussion here is primarily around the teachings and traditions of Christianity and in particular the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Christianity shares much in common with Judaism and Islam and are known as the Abrahamic religions.

Christianity is one of the dominant religions in recent human development, in terms of numbers and influence; and the RCC played a key role in colonial history and spreading modern western civilization around the world.

When it comes to sexual morality, the RCC is seen as conservative and very resistant to change. Therefore specific teachings and the practices of the RCC will be examined and discussed here. Particular focus will be on decision-making processes for women and their reproductive rights, and the interaction of men in this regard.


An overview of inequality Studying the sacred texts of the three Abrahamic religions, one sees that most stories and laws reveal a tendency and practice to oppress and marginalise women. For instance, Jewish men used to pray: “I thank you God for not creating me a pagan; I thank you God for not creating me a woman”! Christianity and Islam also perpetuated similar ideas in their sacred scriptures that men are superior to women. St. Paul wrote to the Ephesians (5): “Let wives be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord. The husband is the head of his wife.”

Men have used this quote to justify their right to make decisions for their wives, leaving out the part that says, “As for you, husbands, love your wivesas Christ loved the Church. … In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they love their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. That is just what Christ does for the Church, because we are part of this body.” (Ephesians 5: 23ff). Importantly, unlike many male leaders today, Paul was open to change and to be challenged and to see his faults.

The very same Paul of Tarsus, seen by many feminists as a male chauvinist, also wrote to the Galatians, 3:28: “There is no longer any difference between Jew and Greek, or between slave and free, or between man and woman; but all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Many Christian leaders are selective and apply a double standard when it comes to using the Bible to oppress others, based on race, class or gender. For instance, some Christian leaders used certain Biblical texts to defend Apartheid “…as the will of God in South Africa”. Others, use the Bible to fight for equality across racial, class and gender lines, based on earlier ideas found in the Jewish Scriptures.


One example is the creation story, which is not an historical account of how the world was created, but rather a theological explanation of creation. The idea of equality is right at the beginning of the creation story, “So God created man [sic] in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female.” Both are created in the image of God.

In the second creation narrative, Eve was created from the side of Adam. Some scholars see this as an indication that men and women should live side by side as equal partners. This kind of interpretation is usually neglected and more focus is on Eve’s role in the “Fall of the human race”. This is also used to justify blaming women and to oppress them. Such blame has prevented women from understanding God as a loving Creator, but rather to see God on the side of domineering men.

[Women’s experience is usually that of discrimination, exploitation and oppression. Most of the authors of the Jewish and Christian scriptures are men, men who often have a poor or negative view of women. ]

Women leaders

The wives of leaders such as Abraham, Jacob and Moses play secondary roles, especially when it comes to decision-making. It is usually God and the male figure who decides that it is time to have a son or a male heir, to continue the legacy of the hero. Women were there just to produce babies, preferably male children. Women themselves, ought not to be leaders.

There are however a few exceptions that give hope. In both the Jewish and Christians scriptures there are a few examples of women who stand out at models of strong and good leadership. Deborah, Ester and Judith are among them. Deborah was an excellent leader not only at home, but also in politics and religion, and was known as the “Mother of Israel” (Book of Judges 5:7). As a prophet she was also known as a very good judge who brought peace and stability.

In the Book of Judith it is stated that: “…her [Judith’s] beauty attracts many suitors but she never marries (16:22); she shows concern for the welfare of others, giving her maid her freedom and distributes her considerable property before her death (16:24). She continues to be held in high esteem years later. “No one ever again spread terror among the Israelites during the lifetime of Judith, or for a long time after her death”.

However, religious stories showing women in leadership roles are the exception not the norm. However, women such as Ester, Deborah and Judith were not alone in fighting for social change, men also joined them.


One such person was Jesus of Nazareth, from the countryside of Galilee in Palestine. Religious leaders marginalised women: they were not allowed to speak to men in public; while those who were menstruating were kept apart from the rest of the community during the time of their “uncleanness”. Jesus challenged such practices in word and action.

Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan women at the well near Sychar shows his willingness to break the social taboos and regulations (Gospel of John: 4) by speaking to Samaritan women and one who had a bad reputation. She later brought a whole village to listen to Jesus, thus playing the role of an apostle.

At another time Jesus even allowed an ‘unclean’

women who had been bleeding for twelve years, to touch him, admiring her faith (Luke 8:43). Jesus also allowed a prostitute to wash and anoint his feet in public! (Luke 7:36ff). This was unthinkable and very challenging to the religious leaders at the time. Another person of ‘ill repute’ was Mary Magdalene. She had been healed from evil spirits and while often seen as a prostitute was among the women who journeyed with Jesus. (Luke 8:2). She was the first person to witness the Resurrected Christ and brought this news to the other apostles.

These were the actions of Jesus and he agreed to be supported by such women in his ministry “out of their own funds” (Luke 8:3).

Such associations by a religious teacher were unheard of and threatened other religious leaders. But, Jesus was not trying to upset others, but to show that women, children, the sick and even sinners, all belong to God and should not be marginalised in religion and society. For Jesus, God cares for all, even the worst sinners. He showed that the love of God can heal and bring wholeness in the lives of individuals and communities.

Jesus’ views, treatment and relationships with women and sinners should be an inspiration for religious leaders all over the world. The double standards applied by the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees to the actions of men and women, are parallels of what happens today.

Woman caught in adultery

In the Gospel of John 8: the Pharisees and teachers of the Law, brought a women to Jesus accusing her of adultery. They said: “According to the law of Moses she must be stoned to death”. No mention was made of the men with whom she had committed adultery! Jesus challenged them: “Let the man among you who has no sin be the first to throw a stone at her”. Christians today need to be careful of their judgements of others, and rather show the same compassion as Jesus. Jesus’ example and teachings are often neglected by Christianity.

A state religion

When Christianity became the official state religion under the Roman Emperor Constantine, in the year 313 CE, it took on the views, prejudices and practices of the Roman Empire. Christianity became more oppressive towards the lower classes, the uneducated and women, than before.

Within the Christian church there were often people, such as Francis of Assisi (Italy) who questioned and challenged the status quo. Others, like Galileo, who held different views from the official Church leadership, were persecuted. Later, the biggest challenges came from Martin Luther and John Calvin. Some progressive changes came about through the Reformation but it was only centuries that significant changes arose.

Vatican council II

Pope John XXIII, came from peasant stock, and convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962, to “open the windows” to fresh thinking and debate. For the first time in history leaders of other denominations and religions attended and even a few women were present! Instead of condemning heretics and excommunicating “those in error”, this Council called for dialogue and tried to bring the “Church and the world” closer to each other.

Several changes were discussed, including the exclusive use of Latin and women covering their heads in Church. A less well known but significant change, is the role of conscience in moral issues.

Up to the Second Vatican Council, male leaders in the Church were seen as the only ones to make moral decisions. Much of the training of priests was spent on moral theology and judging moral matters for believers.

An important document that came out of this Council was entitled: Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern world, also known as “Gaudium et Spes”. Here the Bishops tried to improve relationships with the rest of the world. The opening words: “The joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the men (sic) of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well.”

While the orientation is clear, unfortunately, the language is quite sexist, chauvinistic and patriarchal and has gathered much dust. More than forty years later, Pope John Paul II acknowledged that the Church has neglected the implementation of the Council’s teachings.

This council acknowledged that though divinely inspired, the Church is a human institution, capable of making mistakes and also learning from its mistakes. “The problem is that its tenets often change long after it [the Church] has done eons of damage to society, people and the church alike” a common sentiment expressed by Sr. Joan Chittister, a well known theologian and feminist.

Democracy & conscience

According to Peter Hunter, the RCC condemned the “Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man” [sic] soon after the French Revolution. Up until the 19th Century the Church also condemned notions of democracy.

Hunter raised the fact that the role of conscience has been “neglected” by church leaders. Hunter argues that “The official teaching of the Church, is that it must be obeyed, end of discussion.”

There was not space for much discussion: “Roma locuta: causa finita”. This means, Rome has spoken, the matter is closed! Yet, this is not the complete picture. In its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes # 17) the Second Vatican Council made this statement:

God has willed that man [sic] should “be left in the hands of his own counsel” (Sirach 15:14) so that he might of his own accord seek his creator and freely at- tain his full and blessed perfection by cleaving to him. Man’s [sic] dignity, therefore, requires him to act out of conscious and free choice, as moved and drawn in a personal way from within, and not by blind impulse in himself or mere external constraints.

According to Hunter, while this statement has never been repudiated by Church leaders, it is neglected. Certainly leadership has steered clear of the appropriate role of conscience in decisions of moral action. Therefore, according to some serious theologians, if it is a choice between “obeying the Church and her teachings” or “obeying one’s conscience”, the latter should prevail. The Church however, has stressed the former, thus denying people the right to exercise their own personal authority when it comes to moral decisions. This is also a way of oppressing people as it takes away their right to decide for themselves. In the past the majority of people in South Africa were not allowed to vote and participate in policy- making. A parallel can be drawn with what is happening in the Church. For instance, the majority in the Church, ordinary lay-people, and especially women, are not allowed to make decisions that affect their lives. In the light of Vatican II’s teachings, this must be addressed.

Women and conscience

The importance of people making their own decisions, including the role of their conscience needs to be discussed openly and critically, by all, women and men. Church leaders have to learn to listen and read the signs of the times, and respond with compassion. The example of Jesus has to be considered by women and men today when it comes to transforming oppression. Even though the Church today would ascribe to the values of democracy and human rights, women are still oppressed.

It is only women themselves who can fight for their liberation and freedom, in the Church and outside. Among one of the few examples found in the Bible is that of the Daughters of Zelophad who challenged Moses and the other leaders to grant them land as women despite the fact that this was unheard of at that time.

Local church leaders have to take men’s treatment of women more seriously. Young boys and men have be educated in their families and within churches that the abuse of women is evil. The Church must put more effort into stopping the abuse of women. All manners of viewing women as subordinate and sex objects have to be changed, including sermons, lectures and writings.

Unite and protest

Women have to unite, in their own churches, and also across religious lines and assert themselves. Women need to expose the errors of religious leaders; and their suffering at the hands of religious leaders who promulgate oppressive laws and regulations, A dialogue process is the preferred ideal, but in an oppressive situation the oppressor is usually unwilling to change believing they will lose out and suffer a reverse discrimination. We need serious introspection, social reflection, debates and even protest to agitate for change. In a similar way to racism, sexist oppression can only be changed if the oppressed unite and fight for change.

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